Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 10.2: History of Linguistics


Chapter 10.2: History of Linguistics

Linguistics is the scientific study of human natural language (a definition taken from Akmajian, et al., p. 5). It is considered a science since it seeks to provide an empirical, objective description of language as it exists in the world. Linguists observe language so that they may describe it and then formulate explanations or theories based on their descriptions. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of the modern field of linguistics, “the subject matter of linguistics comprises all manifestations of human speech,” not only “correct” formal utterances, but all other forms, current and past (Course in General Linguistics, p. 6). Linguists also studies the social contexts of language, how language is used in and influenced by social and historical factors.

The subject matter of linguistics comprises all manifestations of human speech, whether that of savages or civilized nations, or of archaic, classical or
decadent periods. In each period the linguist must consider not only correct speech and flowery language, but all other forms of expression as well. And that is not all: since he is often unable to observe speech directly, he must consider written texts, for only through them can he reach idioms that are remote in time or space”

This definition, from Saussure’s 1916 Course in General Linguistics, is a bit out of date now in its choice of words, with its talk of savages and of decadent ages, but it gives a good description of the type of data which linguists are seeking to describe: “all manifestations of human speech.” In the following paragraphs I will give a brief rundown of the history of linguistics as a science, concentrating on what is relevant for an understanding of the history of English.

Historical Linguistics

The field of historical linguistics begins in the late 18th century with a single sentence. When delivering a paper on the history of India, Sir William Jones, an English judge in Calcutta, remarked that he had observed so close a relationship between Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit (the classical language of India) that it
seemed that all three languages had sprung from a “common source.” Several scholars throughout Europe began to investigate the connections between these three languages, especially in order to determine what this “common source” might have been. This study involved gathering together, learning, and studying intensively all European and many Asian languages, not only in their contemporary forms, but more especially in their ancient forms. Grammars started appearing of early languages like Old English, Gothic, and others. As the material became available, scholars began to notice even more correspondences between the different languages. Most notably, Jakob Grimm, known today primarily for his collection of ancient Germanic folktales, discovered that certain correspondences between the sounds of one language and those of another were regular and not random.

The notion that changes in the sounds of a language did not simply occur here and there in random words led to a new approach to the study of languages by a group of young linguists, who were thus called the Junggrammatiker (German for “young grammarians”) by their detractors, though more commonly referred to today as the Neogrammarians. Building on the findings of Grimm and others, the Neogrammarians formulated the theory of the Sound Law, which states that a change that occurs in the development of a language occurs everywhere in the language with absolute regularity and with no exceptions. For example, by comparing the words father in English and pater in Latin, they could predict that other words that started with p in Latin would also start with f in English. This prediction turns out to be true when we look at other word pairs: Latin pisces ~ English fish, Latin pedem ~ English foot, Latin pullus ~ English fowl. In fact, every single occurrence of the letter p in Latin will correspond to an f in English. The correspondence of Latin p to English f is therefore a Sound Law (this one in particular is part of Grimm’s law, which we will discuss later).

In their search for sound laws, the Neogrammarians invented the field of comparative linguistics. By comparing the sounds, words, and grammars of all known languages and dialects, and relying on the theory that all the changes were absolutely regular and exceptionless, they were able to reconstruct forms of languages that were spoken even before the invention of writing. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century much of what we know today about how to investigate the historical development and pre-historical forms of a language had already been formulated.

Structural Linguistics

One problem with the work of the Neogrammarians is that it looked at language almost entirely through the focus of individual sounds and their changes. Major aspects of language were ignored, such as how language was learned or how it was actually used by its speakers. Much of this was changed with the publication of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics in 1916. In this book Saussure treats language as a comprehensive, systematic structure, with all the individual components working together in one, complex whole. Saussure’s approach to language, now known as “Structural Linguistics,” shifted the main emphasis of linguistic study away from diachronic study (i.e., the study of language as it changes through time) to synchronic study (the study of language at a single point in time, especially as it is used by contemporary speakers). Saussure and structural linguists treated language as a social and cultural phenomenon, dependent on the social interplay between the speaker and the auditor as they expressed concepts back and forth through speech.

Saussure’s structural linguistics represents the beginnings of the modern field of linguistics, and indeed its ideas have spread to several other fields (for
example, in literary theory, structuralism and the reaction against it known as post-structuralism are the two primary modes of thought of the twentieth century). Structural linguistics held sway until the 1950s when Noam Chomsky introduced several new ways of approaching the study of language, suggesting that the ability to learn language was innate in all humans, that is, that we have built into our brains a basic knowledge of language which is universal to all human languages. This approach is called Generative Grammar because it suggests that all humans have a certain finite set of cognitive rules (grammar) that we use to generate an infinite set of utterances. Language for Chomsky is more of a biological phenomenon than suggested by Saussure’s social approach, and linguistics has thus become one of the major branches of cognitive science. To some degree after Saussure, but especially after Chomsky, the study of language was in the abstract, separate from the study of any specific language. The study of language change in this approach is not so much the study of changes in individual words or sounds but of the underlying cognitive rules that govern them. We are a long way from the Neogrammarian goal of learning about the history of past cultures; instead the new goal is learning about the human mind. In Chomsky’s words,

One reason for studying language–and for me personally the most compelling reason–is that it is tempting to regard language, in the traditional phrase, as “a mirror of mind.” I do not mean by this simply that the concepts expressed and distinctions developed in normal language use give us insight into the patterns of thought and the world of “common sense” constructed by the human mind. More intriguing, to me at least, is the possibility that by studying language we may discover abstract principles that govern its structure and use, principles that are universal by biological necessity and not mere historical accident, that derive from mental characteristics of the species (from his Reflections on Language, as quoted in Akmajian et al., p. 9).

Here we will focus on the specific changes that English has undergone far more closely than we will on these competing theoretical approaches to language; nevertheless, we will try to keep these and other theoretical approaches in mind so that we can have a better understanding of what language is and how it can change throughout time. Although this course necessarily focuses more on the historical dimensions of linguistics so that you can have a better understanding of how English has been used throughout the course of its existence, I hope that you will also come away with a deeper understanding of language itself and the different avenues of study of language that are available.